“Kid, you should be home baking chocolate chip cookies. You’re taking a job away from a man who needs to support his family.”
I had a co-worker, a veteran sports writer, who used to say this to me frequently at my first newspaper job. His voice had a barking quality, but he was pretty approachable on the whole.
This same man, probably about 30-40 years my senior, also brought me with him to an elite tennis event in Princeton and dispatched me to get quotes from Martina Navratilova while he wrote on deadline. I also accompanied him to Mets and Yankees games, once to an Old-Timers Day where he unleashed me into the locker rooms to interview Tracy Stallard and Al Downing so I could write a story on what it was like to give up a famous home run.
This was in the 1980s and I share it now because we are in a moment. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a positive moment. I keep wanting to speak out about it, but it is difficult to separate my history, our history, from what is happening now. So maybe let’s just use it to get some context.
That veteran sports writer helped shape my career despite his archaic, sexist comments. If he said that same thing to a female colleague in 2019 he’d be called on it and probably be in deep trouble. And while I know that’s a good thing, please indulge me in trying to process some ambivalence.
I spent about 20 years working in sports journalism and loved it. I am an expert in working with men. Like, PhD level expert. I owe much of what I have accomplished to men who liked, respected, and saw something special in my work and I am beyond grateful. That’s important in this story.
There was, in one newsroom I worked in, a beloved columnist who was very touchy feely. A naturally affectionate and exuberant soul, he didn’t think twice about kissing a co-worker’s hand. This didn’t bother me, but in my conversations with colleagues, I knew it didn’t sit well with a lot of women. They hated it.
We also had a security guard at the employee entrance of the building. Every day when I came in he’d say, “Nancy, if anybody tells you you’re not good looking, you send them to me.” I found him harmless, but again, there were others who disagreed and found him offensive.
Both of those reactions are valid. If you feel creeped out by someone’s comments or lack of space boundaries, that’s genuinely how you feel. Same with feeling unfazed or even welcoming of the touch or banter. We feel how we feel.
As the women who have felt encroached upon by former Vice President Joe Biden step up to talk about it, I believe them. I know how it feels to have a man cross the space boundary and it is unnerving. I also believe him when he says he meant no harm and, in his recent video, when he says he is now going to be more thoughtful about it.
This is why we paved the way for coming forward and speaking our truth, right? Not to vilify as much as to send a message: This is not acceptable. Please stop doing it.
Understand that in no way am I talking about sexual assault or rape in the same breath. I am keeping this strictly to behavior that crosses a space or verbal boundary.
In between newspaper jobs, I was the public relations director for a sports league. When we were on the road for a tournament, one aspect of my job was to pick up the hotel bar tab when the last guy left. You can imagine the conversations I was privy to. In one instance a board member picked me up at the airport, looked over at me in the passenger seat, and said he wished he was that seatbelt wrapped around my body. When I told my boss, he thanked me for not suing and handled it.
Years later, after I cut my teeth as a sports writer and won an award, my immediate supervisor said they must have wanted to give it to a woman this year. This same man, when trying to find someone on staff willing to cover something that required particular sensitivity, brightened when I volunteered and said he was happy to be sending in “the varsity team.”
This was how it was. Both the cutting and the satisfying, side by side. I kept moving. It made me better. I never felt like a victim. It was simply part of working in a field I liked.
That said, one of the insights I’ve been getting over the last year or so is generational. Young professional women aren’t having it. I’m happy about that and I’d like to think me and my sisters, so to speak, helped shape that attitude and even make it possible.
In the mid-90s I applied for a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan. In one of my interviews for it, Mitch Albom asked me if I was afraid to miss a year of the sports beat in order to do this fellowship year. Back then, I had had several opportunities to cover pro sports and hadn’t found it as satisfying as giving female athletes the press they deserved. So, no, I wasn’t part of that wholly male mentality of infatuation with pro athletes or threatened by the idea of someone taking my beat.
When I did get the fellowship, one of our speakers at a seminar was Geoffrey Fieger, then Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s attorney. We had to go around the room and introduce ourselves and state what we were studying. When I said “women’s athletics” he openly scoffed.
Why share this now?
Because in the larger context I speak of above, this was at the heart of the real mission. Stop discrediting us. Enough with dismissing our accomplishments. Truly, I was thinking less about a flirtatious comment or hand on my shoulder and more about being taken seriously.
I know these shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. I don’t think they are any more, for the most part.
Maybe these women stayed silent when Biden squeezed their arm because, on some level, they felt in the moment like there were bigger stakes. I think it’s important that he and all the guys like him in his generation and beyond get that. Stop making us choose.
Perhaps this is some karmic payback for his disservice to Anita Hill? Whether Biden runs for president or not, this has illuminated another part of gender relations that might feel uncomfortable now but will ultimately bring us forward.
I’d bet a batch of chocolate chip cookies on it.